For more than a decade, the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF)—one of the nation’s most influential and close-knit communities of social good activists, digital strategists, policy wonks, and social entrepreneurs—has been meeting annually in New York to capture and create the zeitgeist of civic activism in the age of social networks.

While e-government has not yet become “We-government” and the full force of the Internet in politics has yet to emerge, PDF organizers meeting last week expressed new pragmatism, citing rising civic tensions around the world over inequality and waning public trust in government’s capacity to fix it. “We have a trust problem and an engagement problem,” PDF Co-founder Micah Sifry told those gathered. He was talking as much about the emerging civic tech movement as he was about traditional governments that many PDF members are trying to reinvigorate and repair.

PDFers, many of whom have been building prototypes and platforms, new online enterprises, and organizations designed to re-energize civic life and create a more responsive and effective government need to “start building with and not for” more people, Sifry said, and “to better the lives of the many and not just the few.” He was referring, especially, to the 48.9 percent of US citizens who Google’s politics team, in a survey unveiled at PDF Thursday, calls “interested bystanders”—American adults who say they long for deeper civic engagement but stay on the sidelines, because they abhor political conflict and believe their vote no longer matters.

Many conference speakers echoed Sifry’s call for stepped-up inclusivity. In a “Dear PDF” letter she wrote and read from the stage, civic researcher and Harvard Berkman Fellow Kate Krontiris, who worked with Google’s Civic Innovation team on the survey project, said “we need to be designing civic interventions that flow from everyday Americans’ real motivations” for personal, professional, and emotional benefits—“not just our own aspirations for them. … We also need to stop assuming some sort of a priori willingness by those we’re trying to engage … to let us intervene.”

Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University in Seattle, put it more bluntly, urging attendees to get over what he called their “sense of tools imperialism” and work harder to “democratize” the civic tech community by including more grassroots innovators who don’t yet have “access to the prudence of the civil tech revolution.” Catherine Bracy, who led Obama for America’s field office in San Francisco in 2012 and now serves as the director of community organizing for Code for America, called on her tech colleagues to stop neglecting the government they already have in their push to reinvent civic life. “Like many of you,” Bracy said, “I have been in rooms for the last six months having very long, hand-wringing conversations about how we turn these numbers around and get more people engaged civically.” The problem, she said, isn’t a lack of tech tools designed to “hear more people speak.” It is, rather, that “we’re not doing enough work to allow more people to be heard” by those elected to serve. … If you’re out there thinking about how to activate citizens and you’re not considering government’s role, then you’re doing it wrong and you are part of the problem,” Bracy said. “None of this works if all of it doesn’t work.”

For its part, PDF co-founders Sifry and Andrew Rasiej recently launched Civic Hall, a new PDF project and community center in Manhattan co-sponsored by Google, the Omidyar Network, Microsoft, and progressive nonprofits and foundations to promote more collaborative networking and social problem-solving among the world’s civic innovators—social entrepreneurs, government employees, academics, hackers, journalists, and artists comprising the new civic tech community. “‘Building ‘with and not for’ is a critical principal of what we think of when we’re trying now to define civic technology,” Sifry said, announcing the initiative. “We are not just consumers of government. We need to be co-creators, and we have to be including more citizens in our work.”

The good news is that some of that co-creation has already begun. Jess Kutch, co-founder and co-director of the new labor-rights startup, CoWorker.org, talked about its recent work to support a Seattle Starbuck’s employees’ recent decision to speak out against her employer's “no tattoos” dress-code policy, which evolved into a global movement supporting her efforts to overturn the policy. It also prompted others to speak out against violations and unfair policies at other corporations across the country. Emily Jacobi, founder and executive director of Digital Democracy, shared how her organization trained a small community of individuals in Guyana to build their own drone to document and map their ancestral lands, and protect them from poachers and illegal logging.

Among other highlights:

  • Haley Van Dyck, co-founder of the US Digital Service (USDS), said the failure of Healthcare.gov was the “best thing that could have happened” to the nation’s emerging civic technology movement because “there wasn’t time” for bureaucratic delays to defeat the fix. “We had to deliver,” she said, “and we did.” She said the six-person tech team brought in to fix Healthcare.gov were able, “by applying common Silicon Valley and corporate best practices already perfected,” to reduce the number of clicks to complete an application from 72 to16, and processing time from an average 20 minutes to 9. “This still isn’t ideal, but we need to work hard now to give our citizens the government UX they expect.” USDS now has more than 150 of some of the country’s “best minds” engaged in fixing user service problems at the Veterans Administration, the Social Security Administration, and reforming the Department of Education’s student loan portal. Next up for the new agency? Immigration. USDS just soft-launched a new agency interface that will enable processing of green card applications fully online.
  • DoSomething.org CEO Nancy Lublin described how Crisis Text Line (CTL), the DoSomething start-up she founded two years ago, is using text-messaging tech and big data to enable teens to text for help in the real-time moment they might be contemplating suicide, struggling with bulimia, cutting, or seeking advice on how to battle bullying in school. CTL, created in response to rising numbers of texts from teens that had nothing to do with DoSometing.org’s monthly cause-text campaigns, relies on state-of-the-art servers, micro-tagging, and big data to help save lives. “Thirty percent of the text messages we get are about suicide and depression, and we’re triggering active rescues, on average, 2.41 times per day,” she said. Over the past two years, CTL has received 6.7 million text messages, and it is just getting started. The project is one of the nation’s first examples of data-driven service innovation in the nonprofit sector, and is providing actionable insights for parents, school administrators, and all nonprofits working with teens across the country. Among some of the first data points to emerge? Monday is the worst day for eating disorders and Montana teens report having suicidal thoughts more than others using the service (see more data here). Says Lublin: “We are sharing this data, making it open, so that people can use it to build better policies and programs to intervene in new ways.”
  • Dave Troy, one of the web’s leading Twitter cartographers and chief of a new project called Peoplemaps.org, which uses social network data to map cities, shared a Twitter map he made of St. Louis, Missouri, to show how racial divides play out online, as well as off. Troy has been creating data visualizations of residents’ Twitter traffic to discover who is connecting—and who isn’t. His Twitter map of St. Louis, which includes suburban Ferguson, “shows that the city’s black and white people have, with just few exceptions, sorted themselves into two distinct communities, with little, if any, communication between them,” Troy said. “We can use these maps of our online networks to understand how to cross boundaries in our work and get more people activated around causes that matter,” he said. Tech innovators need to use social data more strategically, to “get to know communities and how they behave in the real world.”
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